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Ten Misconceptions About Military Families

As the divide between military families and civilians grows, here are some things non-military folks should understand.

It’s hard to believe our nation has been at war for over a decade. I was a mere freshman in college when we first headed to Afghanistan, and it certainly doesn’t feel like it’s been that long. As if that doesn’t make me feel old enough, I then realize the youngest among our military ranks were barely in kindergarten at that time. They were the age of my young kids and likely can’t remember a time when our country wasn’t at war…or engaged in “overseas contingency operations.” Whatever you want to call it these days.

Yet despite the long years and thousands who have served and sacrificed for our country, the divide between military and civilian remains wide. With veterans now choosing to settle down primarily near military installations, the vast majority of our citizenry will likely experience few connections to someone who has worn a uniform. The only exposure they may have to military life is through the skewed lens of YouTube videos, Pinterest boards, and media reporting.

In an effort to correct this, and help us connect, let’s discuss some misconceptions of military families.

1. No One Size Fits All

Those in uniform (and their families) are as diverse as the citizenry they’ve sworn to serve. From politics to faith to education, it’s a mixed bag within this tight-knit community.

They are conservatives, liberals, moderates, and the politically apathetic. They are married, single, or divorced—with many children or none. They are religious, or not. Their spouses stay home full time, work part time, or have their own careers and professional lives. They sign that dotted line right out of high school, earn bachelor’s degrees, attend trade schools, or hold graduate degrees.

Nearly any demographic you find in the greater populace, you’ll find in uniform—perhaps only a minority in the ranks, but still in the ranks nonetheless.

2. Military Families Want to Serve

For many, the military was not a “last resort” career move, but a deliberate volunteering of their service. The choice to serve in uniform may often mean foregoing higher civilian salaries—not only for themselves, but for their spouses, as well. Military families understand the sacrifices and the trade-offs, and this career path is often not chosen out of need or “because they couldn’t find anything better,” but out of a sheer desire to serve.

3. The Financial Perks Are Often Less than Perky

There’s an inside joke among military spouses when someone accuses one of “marrying for the money.” Sure, that life-insurance policy seems like a lot and a sweet incentive for some silly gold diggers, but the monthly income may barely cover living expenses. Being stationed in a high cost of living area—say, on either coast—does not warrant extra pay, either. Lower enlisted service members may have to turn to state aid programs to help put food on the table. And, unlike in the civilian world, there’s no looking for a new job if times get tough and budgets get tight.

Things don’t appear to be getting any easier: “Congress this year capped the military pay raise at 1 percent, rather than the 1.8 percent that would have kept pace with average annual growth in private-sector wages. It was the first military pay raise since 1999 that did not at least keep pace with private-sector wages, and it was also the lowest annual military pay raise in 40 years.”

Military spouses may be able to find work to help out financially, but regular cross-country—or world-wide—moves make sustaining their careers difficult.

4. The Stereotypical Drama Llama Is Often a Lie

Let’s just get this out there. We all know stereotypes exist, and they don’t exist without cause. But for every cheating story, for every divorce, for every drama-filled episode of “Army Wives” (which, I remind you, is not a documentary), there are far more stories of committed, loving marriages, families, and friendships.

Drama exists, obviously, but not as prevalently as some would have you believe. Of course, happy families living their lives without scandal, adultery, heartache, and gossip aren’t stories that sell.

5. That PTSD Coin Is Two-Sided

There’s been a wonderful and much needed push to increase support and recognition of post-traumatic stress disorder as a disability for our service members. But in doing there’s the danger of using that broad brush to paint most military personnel as having the condition. The difficulty in diagnosing and understanding it doesn’t make this any easier, and so we find the need to balance.

Not everyone who seems fine is without suffering, and not all veterans are ticking time-bombs of rage and stress just waiting to snap.

6. Loose Lips and Sinking Ships Still Apply

Yes, this still applies to our modern military, perhaps even more so with technology being what it is and the ability to transmit information so effortlessly. Family and friends often want details: when do they leave, when do they come back, where are they, what are they doing, what’s going on, what exactly does he do, yada yada.

Operations security is a serious matter with dire consequences (read: people may die). We realize our family and friends want to show support—or maybe they’re simply curious—but when these questions get ignored and go unanswered, it is not because we’re mean, irritated, or mad at you (although if you repeatedly ask we just might be).

7. Freedom? What Freedom?

I’m honestly not sure where these rumors got started, but let’s just end it here. Military families do not have as much freedom as some seem to believe. They don’t get to choose where they are stationed—while they may be asked to draw up a selection list of preferences, there are no guarantees. They don’t get to take leave whenever they want, and stories of leave being denied, weddings being postponed, and vacations being canceled are not exactly rare. They are also not paid to fly home once a year.

And no, your pilot son cannot just take “his plane” and fly home for Christmas. Of course, that may be less your fault for thinking this and more on him for always referring to it as “his plane.”

8. It’s Not Abandonment When They Deploy

While we certainly hate the comparison of a service member’s deployment to a civilian’s “business trip,” that people seem to equate deployment to abandoning a family is ridiculous. Yet the questions remain. “How can you let him leave?” and “Why would he choose to abandon you like this?” As if we really had the freedom to stop him.

Yes, it can be tough to balance the military and family, and the latter almost always seems to take a back seat to the mission. But this is their job, their vocation, their duty, and though military families may not always wear a smile, we do not feel abandoned.

9. Homecomings Rock… but Life Is Messy

Who doesn’t love a good homecoming video montage? The smiles. The tears. The love. The elation. I almost want to cry and smile just thinking about it. Reunions rock. Usually. But they can also be the military equivalent of those picture-perfect lives we mock (and envy) on Pinterest. As Canadian military spouse Kim writes:

The truth is that my mixed feelings about viral reunion videos is that for the rest of the world they are presenting an aspect of the military for them to see. For many, it’s the only aspect of military family life they will ever be exposed to. And just like a stock photo pretends to tell us what parenting looks like, it pretends to show a non-military world what deployments look like.

But both fall short.

Homecomings are not our story.

Deployments are more than just homecomings. Military life is more than just deployments. Homecomings are but a small moment, and reunions don’t always play out in storybook fashion. What civilians don’t see in those videos—what is so easily hidden behind those captured scenes, and what continues long after the camera stops rolling—is the difficulty of that separation, the grief, pain, stress, and sacrifice of that tour, and the struggle to reconnect and relearn how to love and live together.

Homecomings rock. We love them. We cherish them. But when they come and go, life continues with all its mess.

10. But It’s Our Mess

As messy and as chaotic as this life in the military is, and while there are those who can’t wait to leave it behind, far more love this life. It’s not for everyone, just as not everyone thrives in front of a computer, is meant to be a pastor, or is cut out to work on oil rigs. But those who do live this military life own it. They endure it. They savor it. They rock it. Although they may have days when they vent, complain, and struggle, more often than not, they do enjoy this life.

By the way, those lovely civilian reminders that we “knew what we were getting into so stop whining” are not helpful. At all. Just don’t.

This military-civilian disconnect may never completely disappear, and we may never fully understand each other’s hardships and joys, but we can certainly bond under the realization that our lives, whether civilian or military, are messy and rarely Pinterest-worthy.

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